Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The Interpretation

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 15, 2012

  “You are feeling terror because my comment about how you self-sabotage relationships reminds you of how your mom criticized you for having your own thoughts,” I say, giving what psychoanalysts call a “genetic interpretation” because I am talking about how the past is bringing up the present. On the one hand, the patient, in this case, Sarah from my previous post , got angry with the idea that I was not taking responsibility for my actions, but rather I was shifting the “blame” to her mother. On the other hand, this kind of comment provides an opportunity for reflection to see how expectations from authority figures stems from one’s early experiences with his/her caretakers.

The word “interpretation” has always annoyed me in its’ implied certainty. The word sounds too much like a decree or a diagnosis. I prefer the term “thought balloon” to suggest that my comment is an idea, something to chew on, as a way of understanding the influence of the past on the present. Sarah came to see how her relationship with her mom made her fearful of criticism, in that her mom would tell her how her ideas, thoughts, preferences were “wrong”. Consequently, when she gets feedback from others in authority, including her prior teachers and her current boss, she immediately feels like her character is being assassinated and so she becomes defensive. My interpretations have allowed her to reflect on how she confuses feedback with criticism. Hence, interpreting, or explaining my perception of her internal process, is an agent of therapeutic change. Although annoyed by the word, the concept of interpretation is my antibiotic: it can eradicate the disease.

5 Responses to “The Interpretation”

  1. Jon said

    I am confused by calling a “genetic interpretation” something of certainty. To me, an interpretation is looking at a point of view – a version of an understanding. The concept of genetic implies something inherited. Thus, a “genetic interpretation” would be an inherited point of view. This seems far from a certainty – just one of many possible ways of understanding a situation.

    In the case of your interactions with Sarah, you are dealing with a hard task of distinguishing between feedback and criticism. Given the situation you describe, it will be hard for her to distinguish the two. However, there is hope that your understanding will be able to become part of her understanding.

  2. Interesting that you feel the word interpretation suggests an open-minded kind of thought, whereas I hear that word as a decree. I have an issue with the word genetic in this context, but I do understand it to mean that the “interpretation” involves a commentary about previous important experiences. I appreciate your comment enormously because it is clear, as you say, that an “interpretation” is just that, but in so much of my training the word has come to be associated with “the wisdom,” or at least that was my take on it. So, thank you again for offering up a very clear alternative point of view.

    The issue of feedback versus criticism inspires me to write a post on this subject. Feedback is criticism, the issue is only whether it is a character assasination or a point on which the patient could make positive changes in their mental being. This is a complicated distinction. Stay tuned for a future kick-start to this discussion.

    • Jon said

      I use the words criticism and feedback as not synonymous, but related words with different nuances. To me, criticism is more of a censure or an analysis, while feedback is more of a response or reaction. Feedback is less judgmental than criticism.

      I look forward to the future discussion of this topic.

  3. Shelly said

    Haven’t you ever received positive feedback after a presentation , a lecture or class you’ve given? Feedback isn’t always a negative thing. I agree with Jon that an interpretation, something that you may have learned in school, may simply be a theory, another way of saying an educated thought balloon. I do understand that when it’s difficult accepting censorship from others, it stems from our childhood experiences with our parents. But what if a patient describes difficulty accepting criticism from bosses and others and had absentee parents? How does that affect the patient?

    • Right, feedback can be positive or negative, but when negative, it feels like criticism, although as Jon states above, the words have different nuances. In the face of absentee parents, many children assume the vacancy must be because the child is not “good enough” to warrant attention. Hence this parental neglect is another form of parental criticism, just less direct. Thanks.

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